Growing Urban Farmers


A version of this story ran in the January 2012 issue.

Max Elliot has the farming bug, and hopes to pass it on to young people in Austin. Elliot is one of the founders of Urban Roots, a youth development and community gardening nonprofit that educates dozens of young people each year about the benefits of growing food sustainably and eating healthy. Through paid internships, kids learn how to farm, and donate produce to local food banks.

“We feel like there are lots of life lessons through agriculture. When you get people together to clear out a huge field, there’s this amazing sense of accomplishment that comes, and an increased sense of ownership. And that is made much more valuable and meaningful when [youth] then donate produce to those in need and they see that all this effort is really benefiting people. … Our priority is really transforming the lives of these young people and then giving them the chance to really have a huge impact in the community.

“Each year our goal is to grow 30,000 pounds [of produce]. Last year we grew 32,000 pounds and we donated almost 13,000 pounds of produce to local food kitchens and food pantries. That also includes about 1,000 pounds of produce that we donated to youth’s families. We try to encourage and create this culture where it’s great to try food straight off the farm, and it’s great to try new foods. Our youth have never tried a lot of the fruits and vegetables that we grow on the farm. So we’re giving them that chance to take them home and providing them recipes and cooking skills so they can share that with their families.

“We bring together youth from all over town who would not normally hang out together and then we put them in this strange farm that’s this really rare environment, that’s not like anything they know in school or in their neighborhood. This is a place where they can go to get away from school, where they go to get away from troubles in their neighborhood or maybe issues with family.

“Last year we had 80 applicants for the 24 positions we were hiring for. So there’s a big demand among young people for a paid internship where they can really give back to the community. We’re giving them the chance, setting a high bar for them and saying, ‘Hey, you’re going to do some really hard work where you’re going to learn a lot and have a lot of fun, too, but it’s not going to be easy.’

“There’s a huge interest in celebrating local foods, but also a really heightened awareness around food deserts and food justice issues, in addition to anti-obesity campaigns. We’re kind of at the crossroads of all those different movements.

“If we change the way that youth eat and their families eat, that’s great. And if we give them farming skills or gardening skills, that’s amazing. But it’s really all about giving them the chance to cultivate self-esteem, and cultivate life and job skills. That’s the true gift that I feel we give to these young people.”